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1.  Systematic drug perturbations on cancer cells reveal diverse exit paths from proliferative state 
Oncotarget  2016;7(7):7415-7425.
During a cell state transition, cells travel along trajectories in a gene expression state space. This dynamical systems framework complements the traditional concept of molecular pathways that drive cell phenotype switching. To expose the structure that hinders cancer cells from exiting robust proliferative state, we assessed the perturbation capacity of a drug library and identified 16 non-cytotoxic compounds that stimulate MCF7 breast cancer cells to exit from proliferative state to differentiated state. The transcriptome trajectories triggered by these drugs diverged, then converged. Chemical structures and drug targets of these compounds overlapped minimally. However, a network analysis of targeted pathways identified a core signaling pathway - indicating common stress-response and down-regulation of STAT1 before differentiation. This multi-trajectory analysis explores the cells' state transition with a multitude of perturbations in combination with traditional pathway analysis, leading to an encompassing picture of the dynamics of a therapeutically desired cell-state switching.
PMCID: PMC4884928  PMID: 26871731
cancer drug screen; cancer cell differentiation; dynamical system; cell state transition; gene regulatory network
2.  Gene pair signatures in cell type transcriptomes reveal lineage control 
Nature methods  2013;10(6):577-583.
The distinct cell types of multicellular organisms arise due to constraints imposed by gene regulatory networks on the collective change of gene expression across the genome, creating self-stabilizing expression states, or attractors. We compiled a resource of curated human expression data comprising 166 cell types and 2,602 transcription regulating genes and developed a data driven method built around the concept of expression reversal defined at the level of gene pairs, such as those participating in toggle switch circuits. This approach allows us to organize the cell types into their ontogenetic lineage-relationships and to reflect regulatory relationships among genes that explain their ability to function as determinants of cell fate. We show that this method identifies genes belonging to regulatory circuits that control neuronal fate, pluripotency and blood cell differentiation, thus offering a novel large-scale perspective on lineage specification.
PMCID: PMC4131748  PMID: 23603899
3.  Quantum Biology on the Edge of Quantum Chaos 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(3):e89017.
We give a new explanation for why some biological systems can stay quantum coherent for a long time at room temperature, one of the fundamental puzzles of quantum biology. We show that systems with the right level of complexity between chaos and regularity can increase their coherence time by orders of magnitude. Systems near Critical Quantum Chaos or Metal-Insulator Transition (MIT) can have long coherence times and coherent transport at the same time. The new theory tested in a realistic light harvesting system model can reproduce the scaling of critical fluctuations reported in recent experiments. Scaling of return probability in the FMO light harvesting complex shows the signs of universal return probability decay observed at critical MIT. The results may open up new possibilities to design low loss energy and information transport systems in this Poised Realm hovering reversibly between quantum coherence and classicality.
PMCID: PMC3945778  PMID: 24603620
4.  Searching the Clinical Fitness Landscape 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(11):e49901.
Widespread unexplained variations in clinical practices and patient outcomes suggest major opportunities for improving the quality and safety of medical care. However, there is little consensus regarding how to best identify and disseminate healthcare improvements and a dearth of theory to guide the debate. Many consider multicenter randomized controlled trials to be the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, although results are often inconclusive or may not be generally applicable due to differences in the contexts within which care is provided. Increasingly, others advocate the use “quality improvement collaboratives”, in which multi-institutional teams share information to identify potentially better practices that are subsequently evaluated in the local contexts of specific institutions, but there is concern that such collaborative learning approaches lack the statistical rigor of randomized trials. Using an agent-based model, we show how and why a collaborative learning approach almost invariably leads to greater improvements in expected patient outcomes than more traditional approaches in searching simulated clinical fitness landscapes. This is due to a combination of greater statistical power and more context-dependent evaluation of treatments, especially in complex terrains where some combinations of practices may interact in affecting outcomes. The results of our simulations are consistent with observed limitations of randomized controlled trials and provide important insights into probable reasons for effectiveness of quality improvement collaboratives in the complex socio-technical environments of healthcare institutions. Our approach illustrates how modeling the evolution of medical practice as search on a clinical fitness landscape can aid in identifying and understanding strategies for improving the quality and safety of medical care.
PMCID: PMC3498199  PMID: 23166791
5.  Evolution before genes 
Biology Direct  2012;7:1.
Our current understanding of evolution is so tightly linked to template-dependent replication of DNA and RNA molecules that the old idea from Oparin of a self-reproducing 'garbage bag' ('coacervate') of chemicals that predated fully-fledged cell-like entities seems to be farfetched to most scientists today. However, this is exactly the kind of scheme we propose for how Darwinian evolution could have occurred prior to template replication.
We cannot confirm previous claims that autocatalytic sets of organic polymer molecules could undergo evolution in any interesting sense by themselves. While we and others have previously imagined inhibition would result in selectability, we found that it produced multiple attractors in an autocatalytic set that cannot be selected for. Instead, we discovered that if general conditions are satisfied, the accumulation of adaptations in chemical reaction networks can occur. These conditions are the existence of rare reactions producing viable cores (analogous to a genotype), that sustains a molecular periphery (analogous to a phenotype).
We conclude that only when a chemical reaction network consists of many such viable cores, can it be evolvable. When many cores are enclosed in a compartment there is competition between cores within the same compartment, and when there are many compartments, there is between-compartment competition due to the phenotypic effects of cores and their periphery at the compartment level. Acquisition of cores by rare chemical events, and loss of cores at division, allows macromutation, limited heredity and selectability, thus explaining how a poor man's natural selection could have operated prior to genetic templates. This is the only demonstration to date of a mechanism by which pre-template accumulation of adaptation could occur.
This article was reviewed by William Martin and Eugene Koonin.
PMCID: PMC3284417  PMID: 22221860
origin of life; prebiotic evolution; chemical evolution; catalytic reaction networks; autocatalytic sets; replicators; protocells; metabolism-first theory of origin of life
6.  Approaches to the Origin of Life on Earth 
Life : Open Access Journal  2011;1(1):34-48.
I discuss briefly the history of the origin of life field, focusing on the “Miller” era of prebiotic synthesis, through the “Orgel” era seeking enzyme free template replication of single stranded RNA or similar polynucleotides, to the RNA world era with one of its foci on a ribozyme with the capacity to act as a polymerase able to copy itself. I give the history of the independent invention in 1971 by T. Ganti, M. Eigen and myself of three alternative theories of the origin of molecular replication: the Chemotron, the Hypercycle, and Collectively Autocatalytic Sets, CAS, respectively. To date, only collectively autocatalytic DNA, RNA, and peptide sets have achieved molecular reproduction of polymers. Theoretical work and experimental work on CAS both support their plausibility as models of openly evolvable protocells, if housed in dividing compartments such as dividing liposomes. My own further hypothesis beyond that of CAS in themselves, of their formation as a phase transition in complex chemical reaction systems of substrates, reactions and products, where the molecules in the system are candidates to catalyze the very same reactions, now firmly established as theorems, awaits experimental proof using combinatorial chemistry to make libraries of stochastic DNA, RNA and/or polypeptides, or other classes of molecules to test the hypothesis that molecular polymer reproduction has emerged as a true phase transition in complex chemical reaction systems. I remark that my colleague Marc Ballivet of the University of Geneva and I, may have issued the first publications discussing what became combinatorial chemistry, in published issued patents in 1987, 1989 and later, in this field.
PMCID: PMC4187126  PMID: 25382055
origin of life; collectively autocatalytic sets; work cycles; maximum power efficiency
7.  Protein Folding Absent Selection 
Genes  2011;2(3):608-626.
Biological proteins are known to fold into specific 3D conformations. However, the fundamental question has remained: Do they fold because they are biological, and evolution has selected sequences which fold? Or is folding a common trait, widespread throughout sequence space? To address this question arbitrary, unevolved, random-sequence proteins were examined for structural features found in folded, biological proteins. Libraries of long (71 residue), random-sequence polypeptides, with ensemble amino acid composition near the mean for natural globular proteins, were expressed as cleavable fusions with ubiquitin. The structural properties of both the purified pools and individual isolates were then probed using circular dichroism, fluorescence emission, and fluorescence quenching techniques. Despite this necessarily sparse “sampling” of sequence space, structural properties that define globular biological proteins, namely collapsed conformations, secondary structure, and cooperative unfolding, were found to be prevalent among unevolved sequences. Thus, for polypeptides the size of small proteins, natural selection is not necessary to account for the compact and cooperative folded states observed in nature.
PMCID: PMC3927614  PMID: 24710212
protein folding; evolution; sequence space
8.  Required Levels of Catalysis for Emergence of Autocatalytic Sets in Models of Chemical Reaction Systems 
The formation of a self-sustaining autocatalytic chemical network is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the origin of life. The question of whether such a network could form “by chance” within a sufficiently complex suite of molecules and reactions is one that we have investigated for a simple chemical reaction model based on polymer ligation and cleavage. In this paper, we extend this work in several further directions. In particular, we investigate in more detail the levels of catalysis required for a self-sustaining autocatalytic network to form. We study the size of chemical networks within which we might expect to find such an autocatalytic subset, and we extend the theoretical and computational analyses to models in which catalysis requires template matching.
PMCID: PMC3116177  PMID: 21686171
autocatalytic sets; chemical reaction networks; template-based catalysis; origin of life
9.  Cancer attractors: A systems view of tumors from a gene network dynamics and developmental perspective 
Cell lineage commitment and differentiation are governed by a complex gene regulatory network. Disruption of these processes by inappropriate regulatory signals and by mutational rewiring of the network can lead to tumorigenesis. Cancer cells often exhibit immature or embryonic traits and dysregulated developmental genes can act as oncogenes. However, the prevailing paradigm of somatic evolution and multi-step tumorigenesis, while useful in many instances, offers no logically coherent reason for why oncogenesis recapitulates ontogenesis. The formal concept of “cancer attractors”, derived from an integrative, complex systems approach to gene regulatory network may provide a natural explanation. Here we present the theory of attractors in gene network dynamics and review the concept of cell types as attractors. We argue that cancer cells are trapped in abnormal attractors and discuss this concept in the light of recent ideas in cancer biology, including cancer genomics and cancer stem cells, as well as the implications for differentiation therapy.
PMCID: PMC2754594  PMID: 19595782
10.  Using cell fate attractors to uncover transcriptional regulation of HL60 neutrophil differentiation 
BMC Systems Biology  2009;3:20.
The process of cellular differentiation is governed by complex dynamical biomolecular networks consisting of a multitude of genes and their products acting in concert to determine a particular cell fate. Thus, a systems level view is necessary for understanding how a cell coordinates this process and for developing effective therapeutic strategies to treat diseases, such as cancer, in which differentiation plays a significant role. Theoretical considerations and recent experimental evidence support the view that cell fates are high dimensional attractor states of the underlying molecular networks. The temporal behavior of the network states progressing toward different cell fate attractors has the potential to elucidate the underlying molecular mechanisms governing differentiation.
Using the HL60 multipotent promyelocytic leukemia cell line, we performed experiments that ultimately led to two different cell fate attractors by two treatments of varying dosage and duration of the differentiation agent all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA). The dosage and duration combinations of the two treatments were chosen by means of flow cytometric measurements of CD11b, a well-known early differentiation marker, such that they generated two intermediate populations that were poised at the apparently same stage of differentiation. However, the population of one treatment proceeded toward the terminally differentiated neutrophil attractor while that of the other treatment reverted back toward the undifferentiated promyelocytic attractor. We monitored the gene expression changes in the two populations after their respective treatments over a period of five days and identified a set of genes that diverged in their expression, a subset of which promotes neutrophil differentiation while the other represses cell cycle progression. By employing promoter based transcription factor binding site analysis, we found enrichment in the set of divergent genes, of transcription factors functionally linked to tumor progression, cell cycle, and development.
Since many of the transcription factors identified by this approach are also known to be implicated in hematopoietic differentiation and leukemia, this study points to the utility of incorporating a dynamical systems level view into a computational analysis framework for elucidating transcriptional mechanisms regulating differentiation.
PMCID: PMC2652435  PMID: 19222862
11.  Critical Dynamics in Genetic Regulatory Networks: Examples from Four Kingdoms 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(6):e2456.
The coordinated expression of the different genes in an organism is essential to sustain functionality under the random external perturbations to which the organism might be subjected. To cope with such external variability, the global dynamics of the genetic network must possess two central properties. (a) It must be robust enough as to guarantee stability under a broad range of external conditions, and (b) it must be flexible enough to recognize and integrate specific external signals that may help the organism to change and adapt to different environments. This compromise between robustness and adaptability has been observed in dynamical systems operating at the brink of a phase transition between order and chaos. Such systems are termed critical. Thus, criticality, a precise, measurable, and well characterized property of dynamical systems, makes it possible for robustness and adaptability to coexist in living organisms. In this work we investigate the dynamical properties of the gene transcription networks reported for S. cerevisiae, E. coli, and B. subtilis, as well as the network of segment polarity genes of D. melanogaster, and the network of flower development of A. thaliana. We use hundreds of microarray experiments to infer the nature of the regulatory interactions among genes, and implement these data into the Boolean models of the genetic networks. Our results show that, to the best of the current experimental data available, the five networks under study indeed operate close to criticality. The generality of this result suggests that criticality at the genetic level might constitute a fundamental evolutionary mechanism that generates the great diversity of dynamically robust living forms that we observe around us.
PMCID: PMC2423472  PMID: 18560561
12.  Activities and Sensitivities in Boolean Network Models 
Physical review letters  2004;93(4):048701.
We study how the notions of importance of variables in Boolean functions as well as the sensitivities of the functions to changes in these variables impact the dynamical behavior of Boolean networks. The activity of a variable captures its influence on the output of the function and is a measure of that variable's importance. The average sensitivity of a Boolean function captures the smoothness of the function and is related to its internal homogeneity. In a random Boolean network, we show that the expected average sensitivity determines the well-known critical transition curve. We also discuss canalizing functions and the fact that the canalizing variables enjoy higher importance, as measured by their activities, than the noncanalizing variables. Finally, we demonstrate the important role of the average sensitivity in determining the dynamical behavior of a Boolean network.
PMCID: PMC1490311  PMID: 15323803
13.  Noise in a Small Genetic Circuit that Undergoes Bifurcation 
Complexity  2005;11(1):45-51.
Based on the consideration of Boolean dynamics, it has been hypothesized that cell types may correspond to alternative attractors of a gene regulatory network. Recent stochastic Boolean network analysis, however, raised the important question concerning the stability of such attractors. In this paper a detailed numerical analysis is performed within the framework of Langevin dynamics. While the present results confirm that the noise is indeed an important dynamical element, the cell type as represented by attractors can still be a viable hypothesis. It is found that the stability of an attractor depends on the strength of noise related to the distance of the system to the bifurcation point and it can be exponentially stable depending on biological parameters.
PMCID: PMC1456069  PMID: 16670776
cell types; attractors; genetic networks; stability; robustness; stochastic processes; Langevin dynamics

Results 1-13 (13)